Even without the report, the Aramco initial public offering comes with some red flags. The first shares are being offered only on Saudi Arabia’s small stock exchange, and there are reports that domestic investors are being pressured into buying them. Mohammed bin Salman has promoted a $2 trillion valuation for the company, even though international analysts say that may be a third more than it is worth. Aramco temporarily lost half its production following an Iranian-sponsored attack on its production facilities in September, and its ability to defend itself against further strikes is questionable.
But the political risks may be even graver. As Human Rights Watch documents, Mohammed bin Salman’s much-hyped push to modernize the kingdom has been accompanied by some of the most brutal and arbitrary repression in its history.
Around the time of his promotion to crown prince in 2017, the report recounts, Saudi intelligence, prosecution and security services were purged and placed under the direct control of the royal court. There followed wave after wave of political arrests. First came “prominent clerics, public intellectuals, academics and human rights activists” in September 2017; then, two months later, “businesspeople and royal family members.” In May 2018, it was the turn of women’s rights activists, 19 of whom were seized.
The sweeps continued even after the murder of Khashoggi and the international backlash that followed. In April writers and activists were arrested in another crackdown, the report says. Four more religious figures were detained last month.
Jailing peaceful domestic critics is nothing new for the Saudi regime. What makes the Mohammed bin Salman era different, Human Rights Watch says, “is the sheer number and range of individuals targeted over a short period of time as well as the introduction of new repressive practices not seen under the previous Saudi leadership.” For example, the report says a number of the women arrested last year were held incommunicado for months at a secret prison, and at least four were tortured with electric shocks, whippings and sexual assaults.
International investors may believe themselves immune from such treatment. They shouldn’t be so sure. Among those caught up in the Saudi sweeps are U.S. citizens and one of the world’s most prominent investors, Alwaleed bin Talal. Anyone buying into Saudi Arabia has to be prepared for the reckless adventures and strong-arm tactics of its 34-year-old ruler.